Packaged Beverages: Bottle? Rock It!

Alternative packaging for bottled water takes off

The bottled-water industry is maturing beyond the bottle. As industry growth slows, some manufacturers are innovating their packaging with alternative options popping up to take advantage of what one industry consultant calls a "niche opportunity."

Many bottled-water consumers are health and environmentally conscious, says Joe Pawlak, senior vice president of Chicago-based research firm Technomic. Packaging innovations often speak to their concerns.

“First we saw companies reducing the amount of plastic used for bottles and paper used for labels,” he says. “Then there were companies using plastics made from things like potato and corn extracts. Now you see them using cartons or aluminum bottles. It’s the next generation.”

Despite these small changes, the amount of bottled water distributed in the United States in traditional containers—PET, HDPE and glass—has actually grown 1% in the past four years, according to London-based Mintel. But that doesn’t mean alternative options aren’t turning heads. Consumer product researchers have noticed new resealable cartons and spouted stand-up pouches for on-the-go consumption, as well as uniquely shaped bottles that create a luxury vibe.

And that vibe—either environmentally friendly or high-end—is the major benefit of alternative packaging options. They improve point-of-purchase appeal.

“With the category saturated (no pun intended) with offerings, anything a brand can do to differentiate will help,” says Mintel’s global packaging director, David Luttenberger.

Enhancing the user experience is also an advantage for some alternative packages: “If a package can offer some element of functionality, such as a reseal closure, an [ergonomic] on-the-go grip, or even tout a quantifiable environmental or health claim, then consumer interest will follow,” he says.

As far as eco-responsibility goes, a few brands stand out. Boxed Water Is Better comes in a 16.9-ounce carton and, according to the manufacturer, 76% of the box is from a renewable source. The boxes are shipped flat, which the company claims is less wasteful than shipping empty bottles. Another product, Icebox Premium Canadian Spring Water, debuted a similar “pressed paperboard” gable top carton at the 2014 Fancy Food Show.

Pouched water is also notable. Spring Loaded Natural Artesian water comes in an 18-fluid-ounce spouted pouch and claims it can be frozen without changing the quality or taste.

Then there are bottles that are uniquely shaped but made from traditional materials. Those are most often sparkling—bottled water’s fastest-growing segment—or enhanced water. Arty Waters’ Artichoke Water comes in an HDPE 8-ounce squat bottle and has an intriguing design—short with an abnormally wide base.

Despite their cool factor, new packaging options are not without challenges, price point being one of them. According to Mintel, low price is still the most important factor for consumers in choosing unflavored bottled water. Unfortunately, getting fancy also means getting pricey. And although many of the new packaging options boast environmental benefits, their claims aren’t always substantial. Luttenberger has seen PET and glass bottles touting “BPA-free” packaging, “which of course is a ruse. Neither PET plastic nor glass would include BPA in the first place,” he says.

Luttenberger believes packaging that is solutions-based will prevail over packaging that is disruptive without cause: “That means it won’t be the sexiest package that wins at retail, but the package that consumers intuitively see and understand how it will make their life easier, better, safer, or that makes their purchasing decision more confident because they understand the value it brings to their life.”